22 August 2012

Eketorp - The Viking Stronghold



Eketorp is a modern designer board game published by Queen Games. The game is themed around viking strongholds with players trying to gather resources and build up their stronghold while defending attacks and attacking other players. Each turn players simultaneously make a choice about how to allocate their vikings by selecting various actions on an individual player panel hidden from others behind a screen. Actions are then played out with resources won, strongholds attacked and defended through to resolution.




The game is reasonably straightforward and incorporates a nice amount of variety through card play and hidden simultaneous selection. There is just one problem. The english manual is horrible and includes a very disruptive error that totally confuses the rules and changes the nature of the game if played as written.

Board game hobbyists will probably suspect something is wrong and seek out clarification from boardgamegeek where the error is discussed and a correction is provided by players. However the publisher Queen Games has never corrected this error in the english language manual and it remains in error even in electronic form on their website.

This is very poor from Queen Games. They did not sufficiently proof the english translation of the manual, failed to notice the mistake after going to press and include a separate correction, and still fail to recognise the error on their website. Did the game sell so poorly that the work required to recognise this and alert players (say 10 minutes) is too great? Queen Games have. Needing to clarify rules through a third party enthusiast website rather than directly with Queen indicates that they have failed their customers in the case.

Errors in videogames are easily fixed with online connectivity and would be patched automatically before players start a game. This means that the system driven rules enforcement of a game can be altered even after manufacturing. Boardgames are entirely player driven and so all rules enforcement is done manually based on the supplied printed materials. Surely this means that publishers have an obligation to communicate necessary updates and fixes through an easy to find mechanism - such as the product page or support section of their website.

Eketorp is fun when played with the correct rules and I would recommended it to others. I suspect supporting 6 languages in a single package is asking for trouble Queen - get your act together.

16 August 2012

Detective Sandbox - emergent LA Noire

Alternate design for LA Noire:

  • Do not indicate directly whether the correct person was charged. Allow the player to make mistakes but live with it.

  • Cases are constructed with a fixed baseline series of events but variants with different perpetrators exist. You don't know whether you've made the right call by comparing with friends because their game may have played out differently.

  • Provide feedback to success via an end game report, or perhaps mid game career review (in fiction). Encourages repeat play through to close more cases correctly.


This approach contrasts with the design of a game like Heavy Rain which a branching story with multiple paths and endings. In Heavy Rain the motivation for going back after completion is simply to see what else could have happened if different choices were made. It is possible (in most instances) to make the alternate choice and see a new path through the story.

In this proposed redesign of LA Noire it would not be possible to go back on a second play through and see alternate endings/consequences simply by making different choices - the game is wiped clean each time you play and the exact scenario combination would (by design) not be recoverable or repeatable. There are no fail-state endings to the story, it simply continues based on the outcomes of the events as they play out, good or bad.

I see a play through of a game using this design philosophy as a performance by the player, rather than a reading of the story by the player. An author has not written multiple endings which can be viewed one after the other. The player writes the ending as they play, with authorial intent of the designer coming through only in the construction of the sandbox and rules for play.

Choices are meaningless without consequence - this is why we must offer true consequence and avoid the idea of 'repeat until you succeed' game design. This is not the hero's journey - it is your journey and you must be willing to accept the responsibility for its outcome.

No More Fail States

Consider two categories of outcomes within a game:

  1. Outcomes based on a player's choices

  2. Outcomes based on a player's in game performance
We've seen lots of games offer different outcomes based on well signposted choices. Save people or kill them, side with this person or that. Are there games providing interesting (non fail-state) outcomes based on player performance?


As an example the Mass Effect series focuses on choice only. Failure to win a battle always results in a game fail state and restart, much like playing a Mario game. The performance of the player outside of dialogue choices is essentially meaningless, there is only an option to progress or keep trying until you progress. As far as the story is concerned you are an amazing hero who always succeeds at combat  - regardless of whether you actually died and restarted 30 times to progress through the sequence. This disconnect is an example of ludonarrative dissonance as the actual experience of the player restarting over and over until complete is completely at odds with the progression presented in the game once they succeed. The game pretends nothing unusual happened and ignores the reality of a players experience altogether. This lack of acknowledgement completely undermines the in game narrative and distances the emotional impact of the story being presented. From the moment this inconsistency occurs the players are no longer engaged with the idea that the story is about their experience and it transforms into someone else's story which they're now being told to recreate.

A major hurdle in overcoming this problem in a Mass Effect combat scenario is that having a single main player character removes the possibility of combat based fail states resulting in death. Could this be achieved through combat failure resulting in auto withdrawal and retreat rather than death - no battle is "fight to the death"? Perhaps the same would need to hold true for opponents though? It might be odd if the player's side always retreats when their opponents always fight to their death. This suggests an alternate version of a Mass Effect game where you play as multiple characters of different races and your death is permanent. A death and reduction in the overall army/roster reduces chance of end game success.

The traditional design approach has been used in games for decades now, but it needn't be. There are other far more interesting choices that can be made if the designer is willing to trust the player and the game systems they've created. In many cases the game systems are not sufficiently interesting or complex to stand up without adding a completely pre-scripted narrative story to try and keep the player engaged. Contrast this with systems that can interact with players to generate engaging narratives purely based on the interactions of the rulesets with player behaviour - sounds fun huh?

15 August 2012

Monster Hunter

I became interested in the Monster Hunter franchise after hearing a discussion on the Hatchetjob podcast. Monster Hunter has become one of the most popular game series ever in Japan and apparently appeals across many demographics.

The game presents the player with hunting scenarios of increasing scope and grandeur which involve the capture or killing of monters. As the game progresses the complexity of this task increases and players need to carefully plan and prepare for hunts by researching the monster types in order to understand weaknesses and equip accordingly.

I have a copy of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on the PSP. This is the second most recently Monster Hunter game released in the west, with the most recent being Monster Hunter Tri (3) on the Wii. I don't have a Wii so the PSP seemed like a good option. The game is very time consuming and probably suits a platform like the PSP well for someone who might play 20 minutes here and there over an extended period. I also have a copy of the original Monster Hunter release for the PS2 however I'll stick with this more recent and portable version.

  

The concept of going on a hunt in a game is not common and I don't recall every playing a game with this conceit. It does however remind me of another PC game I've heard about which is simply callled The Hunter. This game (which I've heard discussed on the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call podcast) is a real world hunting simulator which involves very slow and careful exploration of the wilderness in order to find and kill various types of wildlife. They refer to sneaking around the woods for hours on end looking to catch a deer without scaring it away. This is too much commitment for me but I imagine a successful hunt can be quite rewarding.

Control Responsiveness

Fluid animation adds delay and reduces responsiveness of control. Platform games of the past had less character animation and were highly responsive to control inputs. Characters more or less responded immediately to control inputs, spinning on the spot with little in the way of simulated momentum or animation sequences to slow down the transitions.

The size of the art character sprites also influences this. Simple animation is more obvious the larger the on screen characters are. Recent examples of games considered to control well such as Super Meat Boy retain relatively small player characters on screen. Does this allow the freedom of reduced frames of animation and contribute to the feeling of tight controls? I suspect so.

A modern example of compromise between the need to create smooth beautiful animation and retain tight responsive controls might be something like Rayman Origins. I have a copy of this on the Xbox 360 and will take note when I get around to playing it.